The Public Square
Almost everything short of the Kingdom of God can be improved, but some things are so very good that it seems churlish to wish they were better. Such a thing is the statement adopted by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), “Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics.” The bishops anticipate that they will once again be accused of imposing their convictions on others, and the usual suspects will engage in dark editorial murmurings about the bishops violating the separation of church and state. The statement cites the Second Vatican Council: “The political community and the Church are autonomous and independent of each other in their own fields. Nevertheless, both are devoted to the personal vocation of man, though under different titles. . . . [Yet] at all times and in all places, the Church should have the true freedom to teach the faith, to proclaim its teaching about society, to carry out its task among men without hindrance, and to pass moral judgment even in matters relating to politics whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it” (Gaudium et Spes, 76).
“Living the Gospel of Life” is about both the fundamental rights of man and the salvation of souls, notably the salvation of the souls of those who violate or support the violation of the most fundamental right to life. In recent years the bishops have frequently been criticized, with some justice, for issuing statements on political, economic, and military matters that exceed their competence (competence here meaning both understanding and authority). In the present instance, they are solidly grounded in what is indisputably Catholic doctrine and their equally indisputable pastoral obligation for the care of souls.
Of course the statement says nothing new about great evils such as abortion and euthanasia, but it speaks the truth with bracing forthrightness. It is noted that respect for human dignity involves a wide spectrum of issues, and good people can disagree about which problems need to be addressed and how. “But for citizens and elected officials alike, the basic principle is simple: We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled, or desperate that life may seem. In other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person created in His image.”
The most significant aspect of the statement is that, for the first time, it confronts firmly and unequivocally a problem that has bedeviled Catholic witness on the life questions for the last decade and more. That problem is the abuse of the metaphor of “the seamless garment” and of the principle expressed in a “consistent ethic of life.” The abuse was to relativize the enormity of taking innocent human life by making it but one item on a long list of concerns in the service of human dignity. Numerous Catholic politicians attempted to excuse their pro-abortion stance by pointing out that they were “right” on other issues supported by the Church. In this ploy they were frequently aided by key staff members of the NCCB, by moral theologians of doubtful fidelity to the Church's teaching, and, sad to say, by not a few bishops—all of whom timorously fretted about the Church being outside the “mainstream” and publicly associated with “one-issue politics.”
“Living the Gospel of Life” readily allows that there are many issues—e.g., racism, poverty, employment, education, housing, health care—pertinent to protecting human dignity. “But being ‘right' in such matters can never excuse a wrong choice regarding direct attacks on innocent human life. . . . If we understand the human person as the ‘temple of the Holy Spirit'—the living house of God—then these [other] issues fall logically into place as the crossbeams and walls of that house. All direct attacks on innocent human life, such as abortion and euthanasia, strike at the house's foundation.” Crucial here is what might be called a metaphor shift, from “seamless garment” and an abstract “consistent ethic” to the house of human dignity whose foundation is the right to life. Neglecting the right to life, the statement contends, is equivalent to building that house on sand.
We are all responsible, the bishops say, for maintaining the house of human dignity, and those who hold public office bear a most particular responsibility. The passage most picked up in news reports is this: “We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. . . . No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can responsibly advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life.” An earlier draft spoke about such public officials imperiling their soul's salvation, but the substantive truth still comes through clearly enough. One might have wished for an additional passage in which bishops reminded themselves that they, too, can cause grave scandal, however inadvertently, when they are not seen to be challenging pro-abortion politicians who are in their pastoral care. There are other things one might wish, but I quickly step back from sounding churlish lest it detract from the great gift that is “Living the Gospel of Life.”
In the encyclical Redemptoris Missio, John Paul II writes, “The Church imposes nothing; she only proposes.” That is precisely what the bishops are doing. They are proposing the truth about human dignity as taught by the Church, affirmed in the American founding, presupposed by the cause of human rights, and supported by clear reason. What people do with that proposal is their own responsibility. But it is now made certain beyond dispute that Catholics who reject that proposal cannot claim to be faithful Catholics. The bishops have committed themselves to work with such persons in a spirit of heightened pastoral urgency. It is perhaps just as well that the statement does not mention excommunication or other sanctions. If it did, there would be a terrible media row about the bishops “threatening” Catholics in positions of public influence.
Not generally understood is the fact that excommunication is always a matter of self-excommunication. A sentence of excommunication is only a formal acknowledgment of what people have done to themselves. And even then the goal of such a measure is not to punish but to lead to repentance and reconciliation. “Living the Gospel of Life” leaves no doubt that those who knowingly, willingly, and persistently violate the foundational truth of the right to life are, in that respect, placing themselves outside communion with the Catholic Church. It is more than possible that at some point some bishops will, reluctantly and sadly, have to formally declare what it is that some Catholics have done to themselves. But nobody should hope for that to happen. The purpose of this admirable statement is not excommunication but conversion to the Gospel of Life, which is, quite simply, the Gospel.
Yeah, But What Was in It for Mother Teresa?
A couple of years ago physicist Alan Sokal published an article in Social Text arguing in the most abstruse postmodernistic jargon that gravity, among other things, is a social construct. It was a hoax, of course, and when Sokol publicly revealed the fact it caused quite a sensation, heaping embarrassment upon the editors and their academic colleagues who had long since lost the capacity to discern the difference between rational discourse and their trendy gibberish. The academy was not amused.
One might expect at first that Susan Kwilecki of the religious studies department and Loretta S. Wilson of economics at Radford University, Virginia, are up to a Sokal-like prank. Their article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the lead article no less, is titled “Was Mother Teresa Maximizing Her Utility? An Idiographic Application of Rational Choice Theory.” There is, alas, not the slightest hint that the authors are anything less than serious, and solemnly so.
It is a long and tedious article, and I will not bore you with the details. It builds on the work of Laurence Iannaccone, who has been pushing the “rational choice” theory of religion for some time, also in the pages of JSSR. The idea is to “approach God as a commodity” and to understand that religious believers are “consumers” rationally calculating their “investment” in a “product” such as salvation supplied by “entrepreneurs” who establish religious “firms.” The theory is another in a long history of efforts to turn the study of religion into a “science,” as that reductionist god is defined by modernity. Since there is no Nobel Prize in religion, some in religious studies, it seems, are trying to compete in the field of economics.
A rational choice reading of Mother Teresa helps us understand that her vaunted love for the poor had another purpose: “Aiding the poor purchased direct contact with Christ. . . . Closeness to God, not the alleviation of human pain in itself, was the preferred religious product.” “Thus from a rational choice perspective, essential facets of Mother Teresa's world-famous mission to the poor reflected her preference for an expensive religious commodity—close proximity to God, or holiness.” For Mother Teresa, worship, the sacramental life, and the pursuit of holiness took priority even over helping people in need. “The rational choice reading of holiness as Mother Teresa's ranking preference explains this otherwise puzzling lapse of compassion for the sick as calculated utility maximization.”
Considering Mother Teresa “as the owner of a successful religious firm,” it becomes obvious that the Missionaries of Charity order “produces a product mix of charity linked with spiritual awareness and Christian salvation.” The “product mix” helps explain her “entrepreneurial success.” “On the one hand, fostering nearness to God, Mother Teresa sold traditional Catholic products—the sacraments, the condemnation of abortion, and reverence for Church authority. On the other hand, with charity as her chief commodity, the firm simultaneously marketed a sideline of nonsectarian humanitarian values—the obligation to help others, a recognition of the sacredness of all life—that appealed to liberal, non-Catholic consumers.”
While Mother Teresa's “professions of self-abnegating surrender to God are difficult to comprehend within the rational choice framework,” a more careful examination leads to the conclusion that she “is a calculating, profit-seeking religious entrepreneur.” Her claims to rely entirely upon God and to refuse financial support that might compromise her vision, “although irrational from a materialistic standpoint, from the point of view of the charismatic, who answers directly to God—the ultimate head of the firm”— reflect “means-to-end thinking.” The authors allow that rational choice theory is unlikely to explain a phenomenon such as Mother Teresa in “all its fullness,” but they conclude that, “While not sufficient by itself and certainly not the only interpretation the data will bear, rational choice theory provides a valuable addition to the arsenal of analytic approaches to religion.”
Perhaps the arsenal will be put to work in a forthcoming article in JSSR, “Was Jesus' Investment in the Cross Maximizing His Utility?” Actually, one does not have to imagine that, for these are precisely the kinds of questions discussed at length by rational choice religion scholars such as Iannaccone, Lawrence Young, Mark Chaves, and others. When I was a pastor in a black parish in Brooklyn many years ago, twelve-year-old Michael asked in catechism class, “If Jesus was doing what he really wanted to do, why was it a sacrifice?” It was a good question, asked in honest wonder and opening the door to reflections of great spiritual and intellectual interest. As applied to religion, rational choice theory is not even one small intellectual step beyond young Michael's perceptive question. And, of course, in presuming to scientifically “explain” the phenomenon of holiness, it closes doors. Far from being sophisticated, it is every bit as vulgar as those Christian business boosters who promote Jesus as “history's greatest salesman.” Or the psychobabble counterpart to rational choice that claims to explain religion in terms of dependency, wish projection, and other tools in the analytical arsenal of the intellectually and spiritually stunted project that is academic religious studies.
Stirring a Storm
“Her canonization has created a storm of controversy in the Jewish community, affecting the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.” That at least is the claim of Abraham Foxman, national director, and Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs, of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Certainly they are doing their best to stir a storm of controversy, although—to judge by the general media and the Jewish press—with limited success. Their press release attacking the canonization of Edith Stein (Sister Theresa Benedicta of the Cross) was issued almost simultaneously with the twentieth anniversary of this pontificate and the publication of ADL's full-page advertisement in the New York Times praising John Paul II's contributions to Jewish-Christian relations. But ADL cannot have it both ways.
The ADL press release complains about “certain Church figures” who are responsible for the “Christianization of the Holocaust,” citing the canonization of Edith Stein and, earlier, of the heroic Father Maximilian Kolbe who, in a drive-by smear, the ADL implies was an anti-Semite. The canonization of Edith Stein is, we are told, “a Jewish text for a Christian pretext, an excuse whereby the Church can claim the same victimization which its own anti-Jewish practices foisted on innocent Jewish lives.” The suggestion that her canonization will help interfaith dialogue is, says the ADL, “pure fantasy.” The “certain Church figures” who have done and suggested what ADL deplores are Edith Stein and John Paul II. Rabbi Klenicki has elsewhere said that it was the duty of Edith Stein “to remain a good Jew and use her influence to urge other Jews to observe their faith.” It is understandable that he holds that view, but it is a complaint he should take up with Edith Stein, which, one may be permitted to suggest, is not best done through a press release attacking the Catholic Church that she embraced. And, if ADL is interested in Jewish-Christian dialogue, it is not helpful to claim that the Holocaust was “the expression of a total pagan anti-Semitism nurtured by two thousand years of Christian teaching of contempt.”
Rabbi Klenicki has over the years made important contributions to Christian-Jewish understanding. Ten years ago I was pleased to write a book with him, Believing Today: Jew and Christian in Conversation (Eerdmans). It is most regrettable that he allows himself to become party to a polemic against Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, John Paul II, and the Catholic Church. And it is most unseemly that ADL treats the Holocaust as a dispute over a piece of merchandise. ADL declares that the Holocaust is an “essentially Jewish event”—as though millions of Christians were not also killed, as though Hitler were not also set upon the destruction of Christianity, in large part because of its Jewish origins. Rabbi David Novak, head of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, says of the ADL statement: “What it says in effect is that the Catholic Church killed Edith Stein and is now trying to cover up its guilt by making her a saint. It is an obscene statement.”
At the canonization of Edith Stein, the Pope spoke movingly about Christians and Jews standing in solidarity against the paganism of that time and all times. To which the ADL contemptuously responds that this is no more than the use of “a Jewish text for a Christian pretext” in an attempt to excuse the Church's responsibility for the Holocaust. The ADL notwithstanding, Jews and Christians who are interested in serious dialogue will respect the conscientious decisions made by the heroes and heroines of both communities, and will respect how those communities honor their own. They will refrain from distorting history for partisan or institutional purposes that obscure the mystery of our providential entanglement in different understandings of what it means to be faithful to the God of Israel, who is the Father of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. And of Abraham Foxman, Leon Klenicki, Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, and John Paul II.
John Paul the Great
I wrote the following, which was published in the Wall Street Journal, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the pontificate of John Paul II. Perhaps it will be of interest to those who are not readers of that estimable newspaper.
“Be not afraid!” That was the theme of Karol Wojtyla's first homily after he became Pope John Paul II. The theme has been repeated like a triphammer throughout his pontificate, which began twenty years ago on October 16, 1978. “Be not afraid!” was addressed to his fellow Poles and others behind what was then called the Iron Curtain, and it marked the beginning of the end for what it is no longer “controversial” to call the Evil Empire. Historians of a secular bent will no doubt celebrate this Pope chiefly for his indispensable part in the collapse of communism, and that is surely no little contribution to world history. But it does not capture the deeper reasons why, as with Pope Leo of the fifth century and Pope Gregory of the sixth century, Pope John Paul will, I believe, be known to history as John Paul the Great.
In 1978 and today at the threshold of the third millennium his cry “Be not afraid!” is addressed not only to persecuted believers, and not only to Christians, but to the entire human community. The message is one of radical humanism. In the future, as in the past, the human project will be threatened, assailed, and brutally battered, but the human project cannot fail. Not finally. The human project cannot fail because, in the person of Jesus Christ, God has invested himself in the human project, and God will not fail. To understand that claim and all its ramifications—moral, cultural, economic, scientific, and political—is to understand the distinctive genius of the pontificate of John Paul II.
Yes, there are many other distinctions often remarked. His visiting 119 countries in more than eighty foreign trips; his mastery of the media and communicating through best-selling books; his World Youth Days in various parts of the world, gathering millions of young people yearning for lives of moral and spiritual grandeur; his determined efforts to “heal the memories” of history in Jewish-Christian relations and other connections where the pain of the past persists. All these facets of the pontificate, however, are part and parcel of the radical humanism of John Paul II. His is an emphatically Christian humanism, but it is no less universal for that. It is precisely because Christ is understood as the Word or logos informing all reality that the message of “Be not afraid!” comprehends everyone and everything.
Of course this teaching is not new. A pope can only help develop and expand upon truths contained in the Jewish-Christian story of salvation as recorded in the Bible and preserved in what is believed to be the divinely guided tradition of the Church. But in the two-thousand-year history of the Church, there have been few pontificates so energetic in the exercise of the teaching ministry. Consider the subjects treated in just some of John Paul's thirteen encyclicals: on Christian evangelization and world religions (Redemptoris Missio, 1990); on the dignity of the human person and the free economy in the free society (Centesimus Annus, 1991); on the nature of moral truth in a relativistic world (Veritatis Splendor, 1993); on “the culture of life” and threats to human dignity (Evangelium Vitae, 1995); on the unity of the Church and the unity of the world (Ut Unum Sint, 1995). And, of course, while the encyclicals are central, they are but a small part of the many other teaching initiatives of this pontificate, including the production of the monumental Catechism of the Catholic Church.
This past October, the Pope issued a new encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), with this basic message: Be not afraid of human reason. The extended and rigorously reasoned argument is a ringing defense of philosophy and science. The document forcefully reiterates the Catholic position that there can be no conflict between faith and reason; all truths are finally one because God is one. This argument is posited against “postmodernism” and other philosophical fashions that deny the universality of truth, and against all forms of religious “fideism” that pit faith against reason or revelation against philosophy. John Paul calls on theologians to respect the rightful autonomy of philosophy, and upon philosophers to regain their nerve in addressing the ultimate questions of meaning—questions that in recent history have too often been consigned to the presumably nonrational realm of “religion.” Only in this way, he contends, can science and technology, which threaten to turn against the human project, be brought back into the conversational circle of authentic humanism.
In these many teaching initiatives, John Paul has demonstrated himself to be “a man of the Council.” His liberal critics, of whom there are many, have over the years accused of him of trying to roll back the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). In fact, he is one of the few surviving participants in the Council. He was there and knows what it was about. Some claim that the Council called for a revolution of Catholicism in accommodating to the modern world. John Paul believes the Council calls for a renewal of Catholicism in challenging the modern world. Liberal dissenters will be with us for a while yet, but I believe that the twenty years of this pontificate ensure that the second position is prevailing and will prevail.
Shortly before he died in 1976, André Malraux said that the twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all. I believe that, at the edge of the third millennium, we are witnessing the desecularization of world history. I have been privileged over the years to get to know the Pope personally. Protocol requires that you not make public what you discuss with the Pope in private, but I asked for and received permission to tell this story.
Once over dinner we were discussing the surprising turns in history. We talked about how Voltaire, Diderot, and the philosophes of the militantly secular Enlightenment would be astonished at what is happening. They were dogmatically convinced that religion, and Catholicism most particularly, was the preeminent obstacle to enlightenment and progress. According to their creed, as people became more enlightened religion would inevitably wither away. And here we are two hundred years later, after the bloody utopias of militant secularism have been, as Marx might say, consigned to the dustbin of history, and the most comprehensive, coherent, and compelling vision of the human future—carrying the light of Israel to the nations—is proposed by the Catholic Church.
“Let's face it, Holy Father,” I said half jokingly, “You are ahead of the curve of history.” After some discussion of what is meant by “the curve of history,” the Pope laughed and said, “Yes, yes, I am ahead of the curve of history. I was going so fast I broke my leg.” After giving me permission to tell the story, he added in a more serious tone, “But you must tell them I will keep on going, and they must, too.” I suppose it is possible that generations from now stories such as this might be told when, in a world less afraid, people recall humanity's debt to John Paul the Great.
A Salutary Reminder
We have often noted here Dr. Johnson's maxim that people need not so much to be instructed as to be reminded. Judge James L. Graham of the United States District Court recently reminded the ACLU, which certainly was in great need of reminding, of our government's deeply religious roots. In American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio v. Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board, the nation's loudest antireligious agitator, along with the help of a Presbyterian minister, once again fled to the protective bosom of the Religion Clause of the First Amendment. This time the particular offense was the inscription of Ohio's state motto, “With God All Things Are Possible,” within the state seal that had been engraved in the granite Capitol Plaza in Columbus, Ohio.
The ACLU charged that this was clearly a prohibited endorsement of the Christian religion; the odd thing is, only the ACLU seemed to be aware of this fact. Newspaper reports from 1959, the year the motto was adopted, indicate that it was taken from Matthew 19:26, but its source was never cited in the legislative documents and is not displayed on the seal. Several “objective and reasonably informed” observers testified in court about the motto. A local senior rabbi could only say that the motto “sounded vaguely familiar”—not surprising, considering that a number of similar statements can be found in the Hebrew Bible (and the Quran too, for that matter). A professor of religious studies at Capital University testified that average college students would probably not be able to identify the motto's source, either. If average citizens in Columbus, Ohio, now recognize the motto as the words of Jesus, it is no doubt thanks to the fine work of the ACLU. Otherwise, there is obviously no cause for alarm about religiously preferential statements in public: the public is too religiously illiterate to pick up on them anyway.
Although the court ruled that the motto is compatible with any theistic religion, the state's apparent preference of religion to nonreligion constituted a further constitutional violation, according to the ACLU. But the court wisely ruled that acknowledging religion as a part of the fabric of society is a far cry from establishing a state religion and monitoring the citizens' adherence to it. Still, the dilemma of interpreting a Constitution rooted in both Christian and Enlightenment principles in a society that two hundred years later is increasingly religiously pluralistic presents no easy answers. Judge Graham expresses in his decision thoughts that by now should be quite familiar to our readers:
“The Justices of the Supreme Court disagree among themselves on the proper role of religion in public life and the extent of the Court's authority to decide these issues under the Establishment Clause. This debate is not merely an academic exercise. Indeed, the fundamental question is just what values may properly inform and mold the public policy of the nation. Will they be exclusively secular or will they include the values embodied in the nation's religious heritage? Some argue that the government's position must be one of strict neutrality. Others argue that in the realm of values, there is no such thing as neutrality. Indeed, it seems indisputable that the laws of every society reflect certain moral presuppositions. The law prohibits, allows, or promotes certain behaviors based upon what that society deems right or wrong. In America today, both sides of the debate on such divisive public issues as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, and pornography are taking a distinct moral stance. Thus, the issue of the role of religion in public life is an important one which deserves the public's attention.”
Those who doubt the essentially religious nature of the founding fathers and documents of the United States need only peruse the history surrounding them to discover otherwise. Judge Graham notes that the Declaration of Independence makes explicit reference to a Creator (who is, ironically, the source of people's rights not to believe in him if they so choose). President Washington made a point of including prayer in his first inaugural address. The first Congress encouraged him also to declare “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God”—and this on the very day that the language of the First Amendment was approved. This same Congress, in one of its earliest actions, chose chaplains for both houses to be paid out of public funds. The national motto, “In God We Trust,” is engraved on the wall in the House of Representatives, and the Capitol building has a room reserved just for prayer. Since the founding of the nation, it has been customary for both national and state legislatures to open their sessions with prayer, and the oaths taken in court and by judges end with the words, “So help me God.” Presidents have made a practice of calling the country to a National Day of Prayer each year, and the national anthem gives thanks for the nation's preservation by the hand of God. The list goes on and on. John Adams, the second President, said it best: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Dr. Johnson was right about the importance of being reminded, and it is most welcome when the reminding comes from a federal judge who obviously understands that what should be obvious is today news to many.
While We're At It
• This is simply for the record. Every time I mention New York City's being the prolepsis of the New Jerusalem, it provokes a protest from a reader or two who wonders how we can live so deprived of “nature.” Of human nature there is plenty, needless to say, but also of other kinds. For instance, I rather enjoy all the birds. Birds in Manhattan? You bet. Amy, who lives next door and is more avid about matters avian, gave me a list the other day of birds sighted this past year in our adjoining back yards: American robin, cardinal, purple finch, dark-eyed junco, black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, blue jay, house sparrow, field sparrow, starling, crow, pigeon, and mourning dove. Of tree-clinging birds there was the hairy woodpecker, downy woodpecker, and common flicker. And one day I saw a falcon, ravenously eating a mouse it had killed. I'm not trying to prove anything, mind you, but I wouldn't be surprised if that list compares quite favorably with the sightings of those who, for whatever strange reasons, deliberately live somewhere other than New York City.
• It's been sending ideologists up the wall for decades, but Americans persist in not being upset by economic inequalities. Eighty percent continue to say that they are middle class and quite well-off, thank you. They don't think the rich are happier than they are, and wealth is way down the list of things that measure their idea of success in life. For a thorough examination of this phenomenon, including the pertinent survey research data, you might want to take a look at a recently published study, Attitudes Toward Economic Inequality by Everett Carll Ladd and Karlyn H. Bowman (American Enterprise Institute, 128 pages,, $9.95 paper).
• This I have from my friend Russell Hittinger. In the Museum of the Confederacy in New Orleans there is displayed a crown of thorns that was sent to Jefferson Davis by a sympathizer. Davis, who after the war was held in a Union prison without charges, had earlier tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist the support of the Vatican for the Southern cause. Pope Pius IX was himself besieged by liberal movements in Italy, and was inclined to identify with the besieged South. He wove the crown of thorns with his own hands and sent it to the imprisoned Davis with a note urging him to remember the sufferings of Christ, noting that just men frequently must suffer for the cause of justice. Politically incorrect, no doubt, but poignant.
• A reader possessed of a perhaps terminal measure of individual creativity sends me the product of what he describes as three years of “Christian Research”: “THE NEW REFORM THEOLOGY OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH” (caps are his). He says the Catholics, Arminians, Calvinists, Lutherans, and others have got it all wrong. “I have revised the Nicene Creed, as set forth by the early Church leaders, to reflect the ‘true sense and meaning' of Scriptures.” “This New Reform Theology of the Christian Faith is THE WAY OF SALVATION FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY AND THE MILLENNIUM.” Clearly, this is important. But it is the ending of the letter that I especially liked: “I just thought I would share this with you.” Considering what is at stake, I should hope so.
• There are difficulties, as mentioned last month, with Charles Frazier's novel Cold Mountain, but it does have its moments. Whether or not it was the author's intent, one incident nicely illustrates a problem with the “moral exemplar” theory of the atonement, namely, that the merit in Christ's death is in his setting us a noble example. The theory has no place for all that business about restitution, resurrection, and the such. Monroe, a refined Unitarian-type parson who for some reason has a mission to the backwoods folk of North Carolina, is telling the Jesus story to Esco, who asks at the end, “And what this fellow come down for was to save us?” Monroe says yes. “From our own bad natures and the like?” Yes again. “And they still done him like they did? Spiked him up and knifed him and all?” Yes indeed. “But you say this story's been passed around some hundred-score years?” Well, nearly. “A very long time,” opines Esco. Then Frazier writes, “Esco grinned as if he had solved a puzzle and stood up and slapped Monroe on the shoulder and said, Well, about all we can do is hope it ain't so.”
• “In purely economic terms, children are an expensive investment,” according to the United Nations Population Fund. Setting aside whether children can be looked at in purely economic terms, the fact remains that not having children is ultimately much more expensive. The current global demographics all point to rapidly declining birthrates matched by increasing numbers of people over the age of sixty. The older group is dependent on the younger for survival, whether by direct support within the family structure or indirectly by social security systems. The fewer young people to work and develop the globe's resources, the bleaker the picture looks for the elderly, and finally everyone else. Grandparents may be a more expensive investment than children, especially when there are no children to foot the bills. Thus one more connection between viewpoints that are anti-natal and pro-euthanasia.
• Writing in New Oxford Review, John F. Quinn, professor of history at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, devotes an article to the proposition that “the neoconservative Catholics” have undertaken a “dramatic change of direction.” With specific reference to my own writing, he says that what was once enthusiasm “for all things American” and for an attendant “Catholic moment” has now given way to a much more grim assessment that is tantamount to “losing faith in America-its government, its culture, and its apathetic people.” There is a smidgen of truth in most generalizations, and it is true that on even-numbered days I am sometimes less hopeful about the American experiment. But it is far from true that I have abandoned the argument or language of the “Catholic moment.” In fact, just the other week I was in Prof. Quinn's Rhode Island vigorously advancing that thesis. The worse things get the more convinced I am of its truth, understanding of course that the Catholic moment is also the moment of opportunity and challenge for Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, and all who have not rejected the suspicion that there is discussible moral truth pertinent to the right ordering of personal and public life. Different accents, different tones, different responses to new occasions? Of course. But a “dramatic change of direction”? Hardly.
• “Evangelicals and Catholics Together in Ireland.” That movement, inspired by ECT in this country, was launched a few months ago, with J. I. Packer, a major participant in ECT here, helping with the launch. The ten-page manifesto of ECT-Ireland was signed by 130 clergy and lay leaders from Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Church of Ireland communities. Like the original ECT, the statement includes both theological affirmations and a clear statement of cultural tasks, emphasizing, as one might expect, the end of “sectarian murder, bitterness, hatred, and division.” In Latin America, where tensions between Protestants and Catholics are also and quite literally explosive, ECT continues to be a meeting point in searching for greater unity in truth. In a forthcoming issue there will be more on an unprecedented meeting of Evangelicals and Catholics scheduled for this March in Quito, Ecuador.
• The headline on the front page of the New York Times is “Christians Gain Support in Fight on ‘Persecution.'” Putting the word persecution in quotes is a nice touch. One notes also the third-person-distant use of “Christians.” You remember the Christians, don't you? An important, if marginal, group in America. Like about 90 percent of the population. Ms. Laurie Goodstein's story continues, coming close to the tone of the Washington Post report of a while back that described conservative Christians as poor, uneducated, and easily led. Says Ms. Goodstein of the Christians: “They are writing letters to countries—some whose names they cannot pronounce—demanding the release of Christian prisoners.” Ms. Goodstein, some of whose sentences do not bear grammatical scrutiny, makes no effort to conceal her disdain for these religious rubes. One cannot imagine a Times story about any other group protesting some aspect of foreign policy—regarding the Middle East or South Africa, for instance—which would point out that some of the protestors are ignorant of pertinent details. Ms. Goodstein reports with relish that at a meeting on the persecution of Christians a woman “raised her hand and asked the speaker to please explain the difference between Muslim and Islam.” Heh, heh, these people are really out of it. But then, just in case the more sophisticated readers of the Times might not get it, Ms. Goodstein adds in parentheses, “one is a person, the other a religion.” A careful reading of this one report could provide grist for a volume on our current culture wars. The Times account belongs to an all too familiar genre. It is called the teaching of contempt, this time applied to Christians not of the liberal persuasion.
• Life is short. Eternity is long. To judge by much contemporary preaching and devotional literature, one might conclude that the reverse is the case. At least that is the observation of people who say that they hear very little about the “last things”—death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell—in the Church these days. Why that should be the case is a subject for elaborate scholarly inquiry. Trying to do something about it is the important contribution of Jeffrey Burton Russell, who in the last two decades has given us books such as The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity; Satan: The Early Christian Tradition; Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages; Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World; and The Prince of Darkness: Evil and the Power of Good in History. The books have been appreciatively reviewed, also in these pages, and now Russell has turned his scholarly attention to a very different subject (although not so different as one might think) with A History of Heaven: The Singing Silence (Princeton University Press, 194 pages,). Possibly there is little preaching and teaching about Heaven because people don't know what to think about it, or whether it can be thought about, or whether there is a Heaven to think about. Moreover, such talk about Heaven as there is is often so sentimental and simplistic, or else caught up in New Ageish “spiritualities,” that the subject has become a downright embarrassment. Russell, who is sure there is a Heaven to think about, makes clear that the contemporary Christian reticence about it is quite recent. Through the centuries the most rigorous systematizers, as well as the most adventuresome mystics, have had a great deal to say about Heaven, and nobody, in his judgment, said it better than Dante. Russell encourages us not to be intimidated by the fear that our talking about Heaven may be misunderstood; after all, it is beyond human understanding. If Heaven really is where we hope to be in eternity, we must talk and think about it.
• The spokesman for Woodrow Wilson's university explains that “there is legitimate room for disagreement about how you decide what is moral and that it's not for us to hold to a particular set of values.” Princeton offered the Ira W. DeCamp Professorship of Bioethics to Peter Singer, a very smart moral lunatic from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who is noted for championing with equal fanaticism the rights of animals and the rightness of eliminating unfit human beings, born and unborn. The problem with conventional ethics, says Mr. Singer, is that they are based on moral intutions, and “many of our considered moral intuitions are formed for selfish reasons, or for religious reasons which were once strong but are now outdated.” The pleasure principle, he insists, should be the only norm that matters, and it's just too bad for those who do not share our pleasures or get in the way of the pleasure of the powerful. The university spokesman says that “experts in the field of ethics have been impressed with Mr. Singer.” Very impressed indeed. In Germany, where people recall how eugenics and euthanasia can get out of hand, Peter Singer has been denied academic platforms. Princeton is more open-minded. It is not for them to hold to a particular set of values.
• Father Joseph M. Connors, S.V.D., offers some advice both principled and wise about choosing where to engage in moral and public policy combat. One should choose, he says, “the principle of the right to life over the quality of life; the principle of subsidiarity, providing assistance only when it is needed; the principle of economy, or getting all the birds you can with one stone; the principle of comparative body count, with thousands more abortions in a day than executions in a year; the principle of focus, or not biting off more than you can chew; the principle of vocation or personal charism, letting everyone do what she does best and wants to do most; the principle of coalition, or accepting strange political bedfellows; the principle of buckling down to the harder and less popular issues rather than hopping on every bandwagon; the principle of putting at least as much effort into right to life as into justice-and-peace; and, finally, the principle of the cardinal virtue of prudence, or simply the overriding principle of informed and inspired common sense, which embraces all the others.” (For more information on Fr. Connors' “Consistent/Consecutive Ethic of Life,” please write to him at P.O. Box 6000, Techny, IL 60082-6000.)
• Every so often the media commentariat gets together and declares another Year of the Woman—for instance, when Geraldine Ferraro received the Democratic nomination for Vice President in 1984, her last good day in politics. Now Gail Collins, editorial writer for our parish bulletin, examines “Why the Women Are Fading Away.” At present there are fewer rather than more women in national politics, and fewer still within reach of real leadership influence. In searching for an explanation, Ms. Collins blames “the mommy detour” (women selfishly taking time out for their children), the “guilt by association” factor (women treated meanly by wicked men who were supposed to help them), and pressure for “campaign finance reform” (which threatens the feminist Emily List that raises big bucks for the liberally orthodox). But then she gets to a more believable reason. “The abortion issue has always been a rallying point for the women-in-politics movement, but it's also a problem. Some of the staunchest abortion-rights advocates will admit that the issue sometimes overshadows everything else, giving the public the idea that women are one-note candidates. ‘There's this perception that women's groups are focused entirely on choice,' says Ruth Messinger, the recent New York mayoral candidate. ‘It's hard to get voters to understand that a higher percentage of women means more day care and better HMO's.'“ It is true that women who defend to the death the right to partial-birth abortion, more accurately known as infanticide, do seem a touch extremist. But Ms. Messinger's notion that that impression would be offset by a recognition that these candidates also favor government-run medicine and expanding the government school system to include children in the cradle suggests that the problem is not women but dumb ideas that feminism has identified as “women's issues” and imposed on female candidates who, in many instances, no doubt know better.
• The elderly sick, especially toward the very end of their lives, consume an inordinate amount of scarce medical resources. That is one argument commonly, although usually in muted form, advanced in favor of doctor-assisted suicide. The evidence is examined in a long article in the New England Journal of Medicine (“What Are the Potential Cost Savings from Legalizing Physician-Assisted Suicide?”) by Ezekiel J. Emanuel and Margaret Battin. Their conclusion: “Drawing on data from the Netherlands on the use of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide and on available U.S. data on costs at the end of life, this analysis explores the degree to which the legalization of physician-assisted suicide might reduce health care costs. The most reasonable estimate is a savings of $627 million, less than 0.07 percent of total health care expenditures. What is true on a national scale is also likely to be reflected in the potential savings for individual managed-care plans. Physician-assisted suicide is not likely to save substantial amounts of money in absolute or relative terms, either for particular institutions or for the nation as a whole.”
• Some years ago I had a friendly correspondence with a New York Times columnist who regularly used “righteous” as an adjective of denigration. For instance, she would criticize “righteous political leaders.” I suggested that surely she meant “self-righteous,” to which she responded that righteous and self-righteous are today synonymous. I thought of this again when working on a Sunday homily. The text was Luke 18, and the New American Bible (NAB), which is, regrettably, the most widely used in Catholic parishes, renders verse 9 this way: “Jesus spoke this parable addressed to those who believed in their own self-righteousness while holding every one else in contempt.” The KJV, RSV, NIV, and other standard English translations all speak of those who trust in their own righteousness, correctly translating the Greek dikaioi. It is of more than passing interest that the NAB translators seem to agree with the above-mentioned columnist that righteousness today means self-righteousness. Rome's response to the joint declaration with the Lutherans on justification by faith emphasized the need to find fresh language with which to communicate the good news of justification in contemporary culture. The need is highlighted by the NAB treatment of Luke 18:9. Presumably we do not want to say that the sinner is justified in appropriating by faith the self-righteousness of Christ. Behind this apparently small linguistic quibble is a larger cultural shift in which necessary distinctions are erased in a process of denigrating any appeal to the normative. Righteousness becomes self-righteousness, a moral argument becomes a moralistic argument, and reference to objective truth is absolutism. Although it goes largely unnoticed, it is a change in language that changes how people think. Of course the ideologues of relativism know perfectly well what they are doing, and feel very righteous about it—as in “self-righteous.” It must immediately be said that this is not to suggest that the NAB translators are part of a conspiracy. The deficiencies of that hapless translation can be explained quite satisfactorily in terms of insouciance toward the original text, deafness to verbal grace and clarity, and easy acquiescence in cultural drift. The parties responsible for the NAB should not be accused of more than they are guilty.
• The Institute for American Values (IAV) has just released a study on how widely used high school health textbooks deal with matters of marriage, family, and sexuality. Written by NYU psychologist Paul Vitz, the study offers good news and bad news. The good news is that these high school textbooks are remarkably positive towards marriage and family—a far cry from their college-level counterparts. They emphasize the supreme importance of spouses to one another and the permanent nature of the marital relationship. They urge students to recognize the maturity required to make a marriage work, and the necessity of going beyond mere romantic infatuation to seek out more valuable qualities in a mate. Sexual abstinence is advocated as the best preparation for marriage. And the destructiveness of divorce is openly acknowledged, even while treading lightly in consideration of student readers who are the children of divorce. That's the good news. The bad news is that these textbooks are boring. Everything good in life is encapsulated by the concept of health—marriage and green vegetables are good for your health, divorce and heroin are bad for your health. Health may be appealing, but it's not morally compelling, and worse yet it's not terribly interesting. It's a sad achievement to make the issues of most urgent interest to teens—like love and sex—as dull as oatmeal. The only spice the authors of the textbooks can find to liven things up a bit is “self-esteem,” which functions as the religious undergirding to the doctrine of health. But it should be painfully clear by now that the individualistic pursuit of one's own self-fulfillment and absolute self-esteem cannot make a marriage work. Even more fundamentally, the direct pursuit of self-esteem never results in self-esteem, only self-centeredness. IAV, thankfully, has some suggestions to build on the good, if obscured, impulses in health education. It needs, first of all, to break out of its narrow intellectual world of medicine and psychology to examine the contributions of other fields, like history, anthropology, and philosophy. Secondly, the banal notion of “health” would be profitably expanded to the morally richer concept of “character,” which would develop virtues to bring students out of themselves. And thirdly, these textbooks should simply be more interesting—and the best way to do that is to draw on the rich traditional heritage at our disposal, to hear what “novelists, poets, painters, sculptors, and filmmakers . . . philosophers, historians, and anthropologists” have to say about this eminently interesting subject.
• Whoever would have guessed that the incorrigible deconstructionist Stanley Fish thinks abortion is wrong? And not only does he think it wrong, he also thinks the logic of the pro-choice side is both flawed and flimsy. And all it took was a little prodding from Princeton's Robert George for him to come out. George challenged Fish during a debate sponsored by the American Political Science Association over the pro-choice claim to have science on its side. Fish immediately conceded, “Professor George is right. And he is right to correct me,” to the astonishment of all present. “I should have known better,” Fish said later. “Pro-life arguments are now based on scientific evidence and the pro-choice arguments are not. That is a cultural, historical fact.” He recognizes the irony of the intellectual role reversal in the abortion debate: “Nowadays, it is pro-lifers who make the scientific question of when the beginning of life occurs the key one in the abortion controversy, while pro-choicers want to transform the question into a ‘metaphysical' or ‘religious' one by distinguishing between mere biological life and ‘moral life.' . . . Until recently pro-choicers might have cast themselves as defenders of rational science against the forces of ignorance and superstition, but when scientific inquiry started pushing back the moment when significant life (in some sense) begins, they shifted tactics and went elsewhere in search of rhetorical weaponry.” Although Fish openly opposes so-called abortion rights, he's still hesitant to call himself pro-life. One step at a time.
• When a country has 120 males for every 100 females, big trouble lies ahead. That is among the points Nicholas Eberstadt makes in his survey of population trends in East Asia. Writing in the National Interest, he notes that China's “grotesque One Child Policy” has led to a resurgence of the age-old practice of female infanticide. South Korea will, according to experts, surpass the 120/100 ratio by the year 2010. Sex-selective abortion is the big factor there. “Unless bachelorhood suddenly becomes much more socially acceptable in East Asia,” Eberstadt writes, “both China and South Korea are poised to experience an increasingly intense, and perhaps desperate, competition among young men for their country's limited supply of brides.” A Chinese scholar predicts an enormous increase in sexual crimes such as “forced marriages, girls stolen for wives, bigamy, visiting prostitutes, rape, adultery, homosexuality, and weird sexual habits.” Eberstadt concludes that the sex imbalance in East Asia is an “irremediable problem” that is already in place, with the full consequences inevitably exploding in the years ahead. And to think that the global campaign for coercive population control and abortion is led by those who call themselves feminists.
• It may merely have been carelessness, or perhaps someone at the Rockland Journal News in Illinois really has an attitude. The picture accompanying the story on the recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio, bears the caption: “Pope John Paul II signs the yadda yadda yesterday.”
• It's not easy to stay on the right side of the law when they keep changing the rules. In recent years federal courts have ruled that Christmas displays on government property are permissible if they are not significantly religious. The way to ensure that is to put into the display enough Santa Clauses, reindeer, peppermint sticks, and other kitsch to send a clear signal that the whole thing is constitutionally safe because it is seasonal and not spiritual—at least not seriously so. This past Christmas in Montreal, however, there was a different problem. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul wanted to hold a parade downtown that would promote giving food and money to help the poor. The merchants of that fair city were greatly upset, since they already sponsor two commercial Christmas parades and feared the competing appeal to charity. The wise men of the city council finally hit upon a compromise. St. Vincent de Paul could have its parade so long as it does not include Santa Claus or other nonreligious symbols of the season. Apparently the perceived secularization of Montreal is such that the merchants assume that the Christ Child poses a less serious threat of competition than Santa Claus. They may be right about that, but given the choice, the Montreal rule is to be preferred over the rule imposed by our federal courts.
• A reader writes that she “can hardly wait for [my] response to Andrew Sullivan.” I'm sorry to disappoint, but I really don't have that much of a response. In a cover article in the New York Times Magazine (“Going Down Screaming”), Sullivan claims that conservative intellectuals have taken a “Puritanical” turn and have become the scolds of a supposedly decadent America. Their extremism is evident in their challenging what Sullivan calls “the post-1960s settlement” on matters moral and cultural. The chief culprits in his screed are the Weekly Standard and this journal, which he calls “the spiritual nerve center of the new conservatism.” “Spiritual nerve center” I'll buy, but I don't recognize FT in his “new conservatism.” The nasty edge of Sullivan's attack is evident in, inter alia, his insinuation that FT is somehow anti-Jewish. He notes that an October 1997 statement of religious leaders published in FT included no Jewish signers. He failed to note that the statement is titled: “We Hold These Truths: A Statement of Christian Conscience and Citizenship.” It would not do to ask Jews to sign an explicitly Christian statement. In fact, there is no publication in America, and probably in the world, that devotes more serious attention to Jewish-Christian relations than FT. I expect Mr. Sullivan is aware of that. There is another important factor. Sullivan is best known for his advocacy of same-sex marriage and the moral acceptance of homosexuality. This is key to his understanding of “the settlement” that some of us question. (In addition to the double entendre of his title, the article includes more than twenty references to homosexuality in his polemic against what he terms “the anti-gay crusade.”) By comparison, Sullivan, who says he is a very serious Catholic, can find nothing more to say about abortion than that it is a “difficult and divisive issue.” Mr. Sullivan is a very capable and very partisan writer who is not above using any stick with which to beat his perceived opponents. But I will stop there, lest it seem I have more of a response than I said.
• The fall issue of Christianity and the Arts, an ecumenical quarterly, is devoted to “Hidden Treasures of the Church: Arts by Catholic Nuns.” Attention is paid to today's nuns, but mainly it evokes the beauty and creativity of religious communities that are, in too many cases, now on the edge of extinction. For a one-year subscription, at $21, write the quarterly at P.O. Box 118088, Chicago, IL 60611.
• I confess to having been a big fan for a long time, going back to The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby in 1965. The 1970 devastation of what would come to be called political correctness and the class conflicts swirling around it, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, probably mugged a lot of liberals into neoconservatism. And in 1987 The Bonfire of the Vanities served up a wickedly accurate depiction of life in New York City at the top and the bottom. When, therefore, Tom Wolfe's huge new novel, A Man in Full, appeared, I knew I would just have to make time for it. I will still look forward to almost anything that Tom Wolfe writes, but the book is a big disappointment on several scores. Not that it isn't laugh-out-loud funny at some points. Wolfe still occasionally tips his hand as the master entertainer. And his assiduous attention to detail provides a couple of harrowing chapters, one on the onerous labor of “pickers” in a freezer of a huge food warehouse, and the other on race, violence, and sex in a state prison. A Man in Full is centered in Atlanta, and some rave reviews say it does for Atlanta what Bonfire did for New York. The problem is that it does pretty much the same thing. There are endless pages of detail on the lifestyle of the very rich who are caught up in cultural and political tensions with transplanted Al Sharptons who manipulate the grievances of the black underclass. It seems almost nobody lives outside the realms of the sumptuous and the slums. Nobody goes to church in Atlanta, except blacks who apparently enjoy being used by hustler preachers in league with rogue politicians. Otherwise, the only appearance of religion comes with a nice young man who is most implausibly a “born-again Stoic” and becomes an evangelist for the Church of Zeus. The weak ending of the novel, which is more collapse than denouement, requires not simply suspended disbelief but unconditional surrender of one's critical faculties. Throughout, the social and economic minutiae picked up by Wolfe's keen powers of observation invite the reader to believe that this is the inside story about the very rich and very poor in Atlanta, and in America, at the end of this crazy century. And there is a lot of inside stuff scathingly related, especially with respect to the rich, but it is as far from suggesting the story in full as Charlie Croker (the central figure) is far from being A Man in Full. Except for the young born-again Stoic, almost all the many cut-out characters that Wolfe puts on stage represent pitiably empty lives. It is unkind, and just a little cheap, to so relentlessly hold them up to ridicule; and long before one gets to the end of seven hundred pages of sustained mockery, one realizes it is no longer very funny. It took Tom Wolfe ten years to write A Man in Full. He is now almost seventy, and one has to hope it will not take so long for him to produce another and better book.
• So what do teachers think they're doing? My friend Robert Bertram sent out a letter to friends, reflecting on his fifty years of teaching theology at various Lutheran schools, including my alma mater, Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. (I should note that the letter arrived as the Yankees were finishing up a season that met with the approval of even such fanatical fans as managing editor Matthew Berke.) Bertram writes: “Teachers are not in business to hit home runs. Our goal is RBIs. We are not soloists. Our students are already on base. We bat behind them and, if we succeed at all, we help drive them in. We score only as they come across home plate. What's more, if you've been teaching as long as I have, something else wonderful happens. (Notice, by the way, that to have taught for fifty years says nothing about whether the teaching was any good. As Peter Mead recently reminded me, ‘Our Lord, after all, brought it off in just three years.') But when you have taught long, the runners whom you once batted in are now far enough along to bat you in. Former students, like your own kids when they grow up, become your teachers in turn. Again and again I'm experiencing that blessing: students who teach me every bit as much as I may have taught them, students to whom I may have delivered the Message but who believe it more boldly, more cheerfully, more sacrificially than I. In fact, that's what you have just been doing with your recent encouragements, advancing this poky runner toward home. That, I count all joy.”
• The Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) is twenty years old, and Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame offers some thoughts on it all. When SCP started, there was an American Catholic Philosophical Association but nothing for Protestants. Plantinga, then at Calvin College, and six others thought it was worth giving the idea a whirl, and twenty years later SCP, now thoroughly ecumenical, has more than a thousand members, and a rapidly growing number of younger members. It is all very encouraging indeed. Along the way, Plantinga suggests the action today is on the religion-and-science front, especially in conversation with biology. As Darwinism and other materialistic accounts of reality come under stronger criticism, and as the rigorously scientific support for such accounts are increasingly recognized to be very shaky indeed, Plantinga notes that the faith commitments, so to speak, of many in the scientific world are becoming more and more overt. He cites Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin, writing in the New York Review of Books. It's a quote worth clipping for use when next the conversation turns to religion and science: “Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community of unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that Miracles may happen.”
• Of the reasons for subscribing to this journal there is no end. The following is from W. Bradford Wilcox, former editor in chief of the lively journal regeneration quarterly: “I also wanted to write you to let you know you can offer a new pitch for subscribing to First Things: romance. I first laid eyes on my wife while she was reading First Things at the University of Virginia library. I was immediately intrigued. It's not often that one spies an attractive blonde keenly pouring over the most intelligent guide to religion and public life. Over the next few months, I kept seeing her in the periodicals room reading First Things. Eventually, I screwed up the courage to ask a mutual friend to set us up on a blind date. A little more than three years after our first date, Danielle and I were married. (We recently celebrated our third anniversary.)” Of course, we cannot guarantee that all encounters of the FT kind will lead to such momentous consequences. A gift subcription, for instance, might only solidify a friendship. But that is no little thing.
• We will be pleased to send a sample issue of this journal to people you think are likely subscribers. Please send names and addresses to First Things, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010 (or e-mail to Ravaughan@aol.com). On the other hand, if they're ready to subscribe, call toll-free 1-800-783-4903.
Sources: Susan Kwilecki and Loretta S. Wilson on Mother Teresa, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, June 1998. Anti-Defamation League press release on canonization of Edith Stein, September 1998.
While We're At It: John F. Quinn on the “dramatic change of direction” among neoconservative Catholics, New Oxford Review, October 1998. On Evangelicals and Catholics Together in Ireland, National Christian Reporter, September 11, 1998. Laurie Goodstein article “Christians Gain Support in Fight on ‘Persecution,'“ New York Times, November 9, 1998. Peter Singer's appointment at Princeton, Wall Street Journal, September 25, 1998. On women in politics, New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1998. On the economies of euthanasia, New England Journal of Medicine, July 16, 1998. “The Course of True Love: Marriage in High School Textbooks” published by the Institute for American Values, Fall 1998. Stanley Fish quoted on abortion, Our Sunday Visitor, October 25, 1998. Nicholas Eberstadt on population trends in East Asia, National Interest, Fall 1998. Headline about Pope John Paul II, Rockland Journal News, October 17, 1998. On Christmas parade controversy in Montreal, Catholic New York, November 5, 1998. “Going Down Screaming” by Andrew Sullivan, New York Times Magazine, October 11, 1998. Alvin Plantinga on religion and science, Faith and Philosophy, April 1998 (quoting Richard Lewontin in New York Review of Books, January 7, 1997).